I've always thought the sportscaster-hallowed transition from thrower (strikeouts, walks, a fastball) to pitcher (fewer strikeouts, fewer walks, a sinker) to be a little too indiscriminately applied; some pitchers simply have "thrower" profiles, and will until the end of time, and others are not "throwers" at all but just pitchers who are not very good. But it gets one thing completely right: striking batters out is, with certain Randy Johnson-sized exceptions, a young man's game.
Here's this year's list; nineteen spots down you'll find Adam Wainwright, who somehow edged out Felix Hernandez, 8.19 K/9 to 8.18, without me realizing it. At 27 he is securely fastened into his peak years, but you wouldn't know that from this list; only a third of the eighteeen ahead of him are older, a list headed by noted fogies Javier Vazquez and A.J. Burnett, 32.
Adam Wainwright's strikeout rate as a starter, to this point, was 6.1; he didn't place last year, having pitched only 132 innings, but in 2009 that would be good for 55th among 78 qualifiers, between Jeff Niemann and Randy Wells. The entire difference between 2009 Adam Wainwright and the ace-by-default who came before him is an impressive strand rate and those two extra strikeouts. How often does this happen to someone who is already basically a pitcher? The anticlimactic answer after the jump:
It happens a lot. In fact, through scientific analysis and arbitrary generalization I've divided this year's top twenty into fireballers who emerge basically fully formed, the Lincecums, and pitchers whose strikeout rates hit another gear after years of adequacy, whom I will charitably label the Voldemorts.
The Lincecums typically had extremely high strikeout rates throughout the minors—not just a batter an inning, and not just in low-A. Their titular team captain (10.42 K/9) struck out 104 batters in his 62 minor league innings; Yovani Gallardo (9.89) struck out more than 12 AAA hitters per nine before leading off his brief and interrupted career with a Wainwrightian 8.2 K/9. Most of these guys, Ubaldo Jimenez, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett among them, feature the kind of fastball that stifles all other discussion in the away team's broadcast booth.
That makes sense to me, and it would naturally engender the thrower/pitcher divide that's thrown up between rookies with high strikeout rates and the other class of successful rookie pitchers, who are all described as some variation upon the Greg Maddux theme. But somewhere between observing that it happens and trying to make a maxim of it it becomes tautological: young pitchers with the best stuff will have the highest strikeout rates. Well, great; so too with old pitchers, fat pitchers, skinny pitchers, the entire spectrum of Armour hot dog-loving, baseball-throwing athletes. Even Zack Greinke, the pitching-smartest prospect to come through the minors in a decade, judging from his advance press, didn't begin striking batters out with impressive frequency until his stuff suddenly leapt from Maddux to Pedro. (This is all, if nothing else, probably good news for the Washington Nationals.)
When I was trying to put together he-who-must-not-be-named's squad I quickly ran into a road block: nearly every late-blooming strikeout artist had some mitigating circumstance surrounding his delayed ascent. Going down the list: Justin Verlander (#2) barely played in the minors, and his otherwise-orderly trip up the leaderboards was interrupted by a bizarre off-year in 2008; Jon Lester (#3) spent time on the DL for lymphoma; Vazquez (#5) was rushed to the majors; Greinke (#8) was Greinke; Ricky Nolasco (#9) spent the customary young Marlin lost season on the disabled list; and so on. Only lonesome Dan Haren (#12), who will not appear unless I say his name two more times, is truly similar to Adam Wainwright—though even he, in his relentlessly steady way, was kind enough to provide a transitional final season in Oakland before turning into a strikeout pitcher.
I'm not sure what all this means. Maybe Wainwright's year in the pen is his mitigating circumstance; maybe the finger injury in 2008 masked a more predictable breakout. But it's good to see that the new conventional wisdom on the subject—strikeouts peak, like defense, well before hitters do—leaves room for an outlier like Adam Wainwright to spend a few more years at his unexpected peak.
Programming note: Like everybody else I am going to miss Chuck's inconceivably consistent work here; he took up a lot of slack when lboros hung up the keyboard, and the only thing he got in payment was the well-deserved chance to change his username. Things might be spotty here, by VEB standards, for the next two weeks; I'll be in Japan for ten days starting October 22 (this is me bragging) and our new, Chuck-less schedule is not quite down in marble. But after that things should be back to offseason-normal. I'll attempt to unleash the roster matrix in the meantime.